Radicals and Disease

Radicals are atoms or molecules with one or more unpaired electrons. Every unpaired electron is constantly searching for another one and acts extremely aggressive. Radicals are powerful oxidising agents. A number of biological functions of the body are dependent on the action of radicals (e.g. the immune system). If kept under control adequately radicals are a useful species; if not, they can do much harm. Under the influence of traces of iron and copper ions e.g. hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) can be converted into the hydroxyl-radical OH* which react with anything and can cause much damage. Various types of radicals can be found, including the super oxide radical (O2-*) and the methyl radical (CH2*).

Radicals may either enter from the outside of the body or originate from specific processes inside the cell. They react for instance with proteins or lipids and cause loss of cell function. Receptors, which serve as means to admit specific messages to the cell, can be affected and even the DNA in the cell nucleus may be damaged. To a certain level the body can neutralise these attacks. The main question however is, how long the cell can resist the degenerative action of radicals. When the cell is unable to resist any longer, it looses its integrity: a number of diseases can be the result.

In the healthy body, there is ample protection against radicals. For instance vitamin E and C, beta-carotene, uric acid, dextrose and several plasma proteins and certain enzymes have anti-oxidant effects. This protects in many ways the possible damage of radicals. Certain proteins combine with iron, and as a consequence, they inhibit iron to play a role in radical formation. Vitamin E has also a preventive effect, as it neutralises the radicals the moment they originate. The more the body ages, the weaker becomes the defence system against radicals.

Radicals play a key role in the development of diseases of old age, such as rheumatism, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and heart- and vascular diseases. Ageing itself is caused by loss of functions of cells, tissues and organs. This loss of function is again due to the breakdown of vital processes in the cell.

Damage due to radicals is considered one of the important causes. Disorders of the central nervous system may be treated by removing radicals. The consequence of dementia and damage caused by injuries or cerebral haemorrhage may be limited in the same way.